After years of planning, a key constituent to water security in southwest La Plata County is on its way.
A 4.6-mile pipeline that will carry water from Lake Nighthorse to Lake Durango went to bid March 31, and construction is expected to start within a month.
“That side of the county really needs help, and that’s what La Plata West is going to do,” said Mardi Gebhardt, a La Plata West Water Authority board member. “Lake Durango is going to be our partner in treating the raw water.”
A 30-inch line will extend from Nighthorse’s north shore, cutting through Bureau of Reclamation land and private property along Wildcat Ridge to a booster pump station. There, an 8-inch line will make a right angle west, running parallel to Wildcat Canyon Road (County Road 141) before winding north to Lake Durango.
Tap fees and a Colorado Water Conservation Board grant will finance the $3.4 million project, which is a collaborative between Lake Durango Water Authority, La Plata West Water Authority and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.
Charlie Smith, general manager of Lake Durango Water Authority, said more than 100 customers are on the waiting list for taps.
“For our service area, this is enough to meet the demands and future demands in the system,” Smith said, referring to the many customers hauling water. The authority can pump 400 gallons per minute, depending on demand.
Early projections anticipated the project would be complete by the end of 2015, but as Smith said, “there’s time, and there’s water time.”
A pending final environmental assessment from the Bureau of Reclamation and negotiations with 16 property owners abutting the project is a large part of that.
Jedd Sebern’s home, 3½ miles up Wildcat Canyon, is on well water and will get tap access in exchange for the infrastructure that will run through his yard.
“Originally, they asked to take 50 feet of our property and bring the raw water line through with no compensation,” Sebern said. “We’ve negotiated a return for treated water.”
The pipe will boost the reserves of Lake Durango, which supplies water to the Durango West I and II, Shenandoah, Rafter J and Trapper’s Crossing communities.
Jim Cross, a 28-year resident of Durango West II, said the project will mean backup to his neighborhood’s water supply and loosen restrictions in place for the past two summers.
Households in his service area incur an additional fee if they use more than 12,000 gallons a month. Average monthly use is in the realm of 3,000 gallons.
“That seemed to work OK, but it got tougher the last couple summers when we were not allowed to use water outside at all. I think we created a problem because we missed out on extra monies that came in from users that went over,” Cross said. “If they won’t let us play on the silly lake, we should be able to get this pipeline.”
Not all negotiations with property owners are final, but the project is on track, and parties are committed to preserving critical wildlife habitat.
Amy Schwarzbach, executive director of the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, has helped property owners negotiate three conservation easements abutting the pipeline’s alignment.
“Those lands along U.S. Highway 160 and adjacent to Lake Durango have a lot of conservation value,” she said. “When construction projects take place, especially on the Dryside, my biggest concern is the conservation easements to protect wildlife habitat and scenic open space. By developing on those properties, even though the pipeline will be buried, it can still have an impact on those natural resources.”
Schwarzbach advocated throughout the planning process for measures to keep trenches from becoming erosive, prevent noxious weeds such as Tamarisk from spreading, and avoid tree felling to maintain bald eagle nesting sites.
The pipeline is the first mechanism that will pump water out of Lake Nighthorse and a first step to fulfilling a grander scheme to supply water, particularly to the tribes, which have the largest claims to Nighthorse water.
The agreement among the four stakeholders allows the Ute Mountain Utes to come back at a later time and extend the pipeline. Peter Ortega, legal counsel for the Ute Mountain Utes, said the pipeline is the first phase of moving water to where the tribe really needs it.
“We hope it eventually will reach the western edge of the reservation,” Ortega said. “It’s moving water slowly in our direction.”